KYIV -- Each of the 12 Ukrainian coats of arms painted on the Humvee carrying the Stinger missile launcher represents a Russian target shot down by Oleksandr. Since the start of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the 26-year-old soldier says, he has hit and destroyed two Su-25 fighter planes, two K52 attack helicopters, six Orland drones, and two Shahed drones.
"What’s left is to shoot down a cruise missile," he told RFE/RL one recent morning with a laugh. He and his comrade Oleh, who drives the Humvee, were upbeat, despite not sleeping the previous night. They were on their feet and ready to target Russian rockets and drones after an air alert went off in Ukraine's capital.
This has been a regular occurrence since Russia stepped up such attacks on Ukraine in late April after a nearly two-month lull. Since then, Russia has significantly increased the frequency of its attacks on targets deep inside Ukraine -- especially in Kyiv. Ukrainian air defenses, meanwhile, appear to be strikingly efficient in shooting down Russian missiles and drones.
Oleksandr said that the past month -- with Kyiv attacked 11 times -- was "tense" but "not something one cannot get used to."
As it adapts to new Russian tactics, Ukrainian air defenses are getting better and better, he said, claiming that all of the shots he has fired with the U.S. man-portable air-defense system since the full-scale invasion in February 2022 had hit their targets.
Small, mobile teams like Oleksandr and Oleh proved crucial in the tough first few weeks of the invasion. Oleksandr says he shot down two planes and two helicopters as Ukrainian forces prevented Russian troops from taking Kyiv. Fifteen months later, with Russia starting to use large numbers of surveillance drowns in its strikes, they continue to play an important part.
But the two key air-defense systems used by Ukraine to repel Russian attacks since the start of the invasion are the Soviet-era long-range S-300 and medium-range Buk. After months of calls for more help protecting against air attacks, Ukraine began to receive new Western-made systems such as IRIS-T, NASAMS, Crotale, Gepard, and -- most recently -- U.S.-built Patriot missile batteries.
Hunt For Patriots
"With these weapons, Kyiv's air defense undoubtedly reached a world class," military analyst Denys Popovych told RFE/RL.
New capabilities were demonstrated on May 6, when Ukrainian authorities said Kyiv’s air defenses shot down a Kinzhal, a hypersonic missile that Russia has boasted could penetrate such systems.
"It turned out that Putin's ‘wunderwaffe’ was grossly overestimated," Popovych said.
When the Russians learned that Ukraine was capable of shooting down a Kinzhal, they "went on a hunt for Patriots," he asserted.
Soon, on May 16, many Kyiv residents woke up to an exceptionally loud series of explosions, and several blasts lit up the night sky. The attack, which was launched from the north, south, and east, included six Kinzhal missiles fired from aircraft, nine Kalibr cruise missiles fired from ships in the Black Sea, three ground-launched S-400 and Iskander-M missiles, and nine drones, according to General Valeriy Zaluzhniy, the commander in chief of the Ukrainian Armed Forces.
All 18 Russian missiles were intercepted and destroyed, as were all of the drones, Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov claimed, calling it "another unbelievable success for the Ukrainian Air Forces,” the military branch that includes air defense.
As a result of the attack, a building and several vehicles caught fire from falling debris in one area of the capital and at least three people were injured, according to Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko.
In the aftermath of the attack, the Russian Defense Ministry claimed that it had destroyed a Patriot missile system -- one of at least two that Ukraine reportedly now possesses.
While Ukrainian authorities initially declined to comment on the matter, media outlets cited U.S. officials as saying that a Patriot system was damaged. The Pentagon said on May 18 that the damage had been fixed and that the Patriot system was "fully back and operational."
Each time a barrage of Russian rockets or drones is shot down, civilians in targeted cities and towns breathe a sigh of relief.
“Everybody understands it is terrible. It was a sleepless night with the sound of an air alert. I was hiding with my kids in a corridor,” a woman in Kyiv told RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service on the morning after the major attack on May 16. “But this is not that bad, given what could have happened in terms of the damage all this stuff aimed at Kyiv could have caused.”
Russia's New Aims
Analysts say Russia's new strategy is most likely aimed at gradually depleting Ukraine's air-defense capabilities and slowing its long-anticipated Ukrainian counteroffensive -- which an adviser to President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, Mykhaylo Podolyak, said this week is already under way in some areas.
According to Popovych, the recent strikes on Kyiv and other places far from the front line -- such as the central city of Uman, where at least 25 people were killed on April 28, or the Zhytomyr, Vinnytsia, Khmelnytskiy, and Ternopil regions, indicate that Russian forces are trying to hit places where Western military aid is concentrated to create problems for the counteroffensive.
They are not only trying to destroy air-defense systems but also targeting command-and-control centers, supply routes and points of concentration of ammunition and equipment, fuel storage sites, and areas of troop concentration, he said.
In the wake of the latest attack on the city of Dnipro, where Ukrainain authorities said air defenses shot down four out of 20 Russian missiles and all 20 drones used in the assault, Air Force spokesman Yuriy Ihnat said that the country does not have sufficient capabilities to withstand the large number of ballistic missiles used by Russia.
"We have Patriot systems on combat duty, but it is clear that this is not enough to cover all the necessary directions, all major cities, all important critical infrastructure," he said. "Ukraine is a big country, and we need more resources.”
Moreover, The New York Times reported in early April that according to a leaked Pentagon assessment from late February, stockpiles of missiles for the S-300 and Buk systems were expected to be "completely depleted" by early May. It is unclear if the usage rate indicated in the documents has since changed.
Fortifying Ukraine's air-defense capability was the major theme of the meeting of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group at Ramstein Air Base in Germany on April 21.
General Mark Milley, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that beefing up Ukraine's air-defense system was "the critical military task right now," adding that the goal is to make sure that it is robust and rigorous -- "layered from high altitude to mid-altitude to low altitude and from short range, mid-range, to long range."
Meanwhile, Vadym Skibitsky, the deputy head of Ukraine's military intelligence, told the news outlet RDC that recent events prove that Russia -- which used nearly 900 missiles during the fall and winter -- has managed to establish production lines to replenish their supplies, despite the sanctions, and produce up to 67 missiles per month.
"Earlier, they failed to take our energy system down, and now they have completely different priorities: to disrupt our plans and preparations for active actions during the spring and summer campaign," he said.